Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why can't we be friends

The past few weeks my friends and I have been thinking hard about the living history community, or lack thereof. There are tons of people who bring history to life by recreating the dress, the skills, the environments, the personalities of the past. However, we are a pretty fragmented bunch, working in small groups, to incredibly various ends. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it means that most folks who want to get involved in a group re-creating history have a lot of different groups to choose from, all representing different time periods and geographies, different levels of historical accuracy, recreating different slices of life, groups have different governing structures, aims and goals, time commitment, you name it. There might just be an infinite number of different ways to style a living history group or organization, and the only reason why there are not an infinite number of living history groups is the limited number of people to join those groups!

As an insider this diversity can be a challenge, but for a non-participant it is almost impossible to navigate. To someone whose interest in living history is only tangential what is the difference between a renaissance faire, the SCA, an experimental archaeology group, a member of Regia Anglorum, a LARP, a Heritage site like Yorvik, and a museum like Higgins Armory; a couple hundred years of history? When talking to a friend, work colleague, or acquaintance about what I do when I’m not at my nine-to-five, they are very easily confused. Heck, I often get asked about civil war and revolutionary war reenactments when I talk about my interest in dressing up and portraying the past, because I’m in America, and those might be the two most popular time periods to re-create.

But I don’t do all of those different types of living history. I don’t want to --well, most days I don’t want to. When I am introduced to a friend of a friend they draw on what little they know, and try to continue the conversation by saying something like:
“you reenact the Renaissance, are you a member of the SCA?”
“You do Renaissance faires, do you do that Live Action Role Play stuff?”

my answer is no. I don’t. Then I feel I have to explain why; I need to justify my choices in reenactment, and explain that I am not one of them. If the question is about the Revolutionary war or the civil war I can fairly easily explain that I am interested in a different historical period or in reenacting less military aspects. When the question is about a group recreating a similar time-period and geographic location, I have a harder time being neutral in my answer. It is hard not to go for the: “I am better than them” sort of answer, to put others down to make my own choices appear less kookey.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to not degrade any person or group that could at all be considered living history, or historical reenactment, particularly since attending Reenactorfest, working with more diverse groups, and especially since starting the podcast. There are too few of us doing this sort of thing, and as my friend Amanda put it: “Why does there have to be a ‘them’?”

As a whole, I have found different living history and reenactment groups to be friendly and welcoming, and very willing to engage in a cross-group dialogue about living history. What other people can we talk to in a meaningful way about this wonderful way of life? But we still have trouble when talking to strangers. Time after time I see reenactors and living history folks put down other groups to perfect strangers. Or even sometimes to other reenactors in a “aren’t we both better than those Hollywood types” or something equally ridiculous.

I am going to work harder at being nice to every type of living history group. I hope you will join me.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

There is a little translator in my head

When I am participating in a Living History event where the public is in attendance I have a little translator in my head that interprets what a person is saying to me, and translating it into something I can respond to.

Like when a hapless member of the public asks if that cook fire is real while my water boils over in front of them. I’d love to say something direct (and probably sarcastic) to answer them, but the translator (and educator) in my head has already taken the statement and turned it into an inquiry about what I am doing, and a request to know more. So I can smile and explain that the wind is blowing so hard that my fire is burning hot and fast, so I’ve got to keep a constant eye on it out here.

The translator works especially hard when I am in first person, when the year for me is 1529 instead of the current year, but it still works even when I am in the present. It is possible to ask dumb questions, but my translator will make them less dumb.

but more on being in 1529, that translator does work much harder. For one thing we’re speaking modern English, even if I have a funny accent. There are tons of technological advances, social innovations, learning methods, worldviews that are different between then and now. If I really was from 1529 and you really were from 2010, we would spend a lot of our time struggling to communicate, and less time learning abut how we are both different and the same. So the translator works on the way out too, and allows whatever persona I am in to speak in a way that is comprehensible to my modern audience.

Does the translator ever get in the way? Oh sure. I bet people would learn lots if I let them hear all the political, racial, social views that a person in 1529 might hold, but for the most part the events that I am participating in are attend by a public that is there to enjoy themselves, and I’d like the conversation to last more than a few sentences before they back away because they’re so uncomfortable. I’d like them to tell their friends they had fun, and come back for more next time.

So please, if you are at an event and you don’t know exactly how to ask the questions that you’d like to ask, give it a try, the little translator in the reenactor’s head might do the work for you, then you can have a lovely conversation. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rest home for forgetful reenactors

When we got to the FPIPN (First Person Interpreter Practitioners Network) conference we had no idea what to expect. When sitting in the meeting house in the middle of Mystic Seaport we were surrounded by people, but they were all bundled in their normal 12st century coats and Jackets (there was a negative degree wind chill outside, and the building was not being heated) so it was really hard to tell who these people were and what we were in for. After a quick introduction by one of the conference hosts the keynote speaker warmed us all up with a few jokes about working at Plimoth Plantation long enough to now be his own father-in-law (the first season he was at Plimoth he played the role of a pilgrim who gets married in 1627, now he plays the father of the pilgrim that his first role marries.)

One of the funnier warm-ups was this:
When we all get old and imfirm they will need a special nursing home for us. When our memories start to go, we’ll have trouble figuring out who we really are. He said: “all of us at the plantation, we’ll all be Priscilla Alden.”

What an image!

It is not schizophrenia, I really was the wife of a baron of Bavaria, if only on the weekends.
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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

First-Person Networking Conference

Stephen, Tom, Amanda and I attended an interesting conference this weekend. The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums has, as part of its membership, a lot of networking groups on various specific topics. There is a group that talks about first-person interpretation, also known as costumed characters, or historical role-players. This group held their own mini-conference this past weekend at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. It was well attended by the folks at Plimoth Plantation, and the Mystic folks, and there were a number of small museums that sent one or two delegates. There were some independent folks there, and us representing Autumn Tree Productions, the Guild of Saint Morritz, and the Living History Podcast. We’ll be doing a podcast episode on the conference, and I don’t want to duplicate all of that, but there were some points I thought I’d mention here that may not make it into the podcast.

This entry will mostly be patting myself on the back; this is my blog after all. But if you’d rather not hear glowing reviews of myself and Stephen (from a definitely biased source) I will be putting up another entry soon on the best keynote speaker I think I’ve ever witnessed (and I have never met the guy before, so no pre-judgment on my part.)

For my own part, I felt like we made a really strong showing. As an “independent” and one for whom this sort of thing is not my main source of income I was worried about being surrounded by all of these professionals. But all of our training and hard work paid off; we were able to keep up in all the conversations about the industry, about living history topics, and about training tips and techniques. In one session the presenter asked for volunteers to do a bit in character. I volunteered was paired with another volunteer who got pretend to be a clueless member of the public. My partner had a chip on her shoulder. She got right in my face and asked me all of the stupid questions we all get bombarded with, why was I dressed like that, wasn’t I hot in that, who was I supposed to be. I answered every single one of her questions, and got across who I was and as many facts about where I was coming from as I possibly could. I did not let her phase me, I was totally cheerful and worked to keep the interaction moving in a positive direction. The other person who volunteered to show us their character got an easy partner, who was totally willing to be lead along, and he did not give her any information until he had been much prodded to do so. So kudos for me and ATP.

Stephen did even better when we got to show off our stuff at dinner that night. To set the scene, we’d been hearing talks all day on playing to the real, not being afraid of the darker emotions, or playing characters that are not likeable. After all the seminars on Saturday everyone gathered for a dinner, where we were encouraged to come in costume and in-character. There were some 14th century folks, and a scattering of various revolutionary war era people. The two largest groups were the pilgrims in 1627 and the Mystic folks in 1870s Victorian splendor. Stephen took a look at these two groups representing fairly repressive protestants and in his big German way announced that he was a baron (the highest ranking official there, though George Washington was close) and that we were Catholic. He said it as a challenge to the entire room, the effect was positively electric. In fact, no one dared sit with us at our table! We dealt with that problem by moving to join another table and we ended up having a lot of really good conversations, both in first-person, and then out. After all that talk about being real and not being over-the-top, it felt good to show that sometimes over-the-top is being real, and that not every age is repressive. I was worried that we might have gone a bit too far, but Stephen told me that as he was leaving the conference one of the organizers came up to him and told him to please continue to be big and German. Stephen answered that he didn’t think he could be any other way.

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